Flying the, uh, friendly skies?

Randy Riley - Contributing columnist

We are an aviation community. If you have ever called Wilmington home, there have been nights that you had to sleep through the roar of jet engines. It came with the territory.

From the early days of aviation, through the years of the Army Air Corps, glider research and training, the conversion to the Clinton County Army Airfield, followed by the temporary closure of the airbase in 1971; followed by the highs and lows of being a fast-growing hub for package sorting and delivery; this community and aviation have been partners.

Debbie’s grandmother, Mamaw Reynolds, was born just two miles south of a grassy farm field just beyond the end of Fife Avenue. That is close to where the original runway was built for the first small airfield in the county.

Mamaw was born in 1899. That first runway was built 30 years later in 1929. It amazes me that Mamaw was alive for the full evolution of flight in the United States.

In the late 1800s, Orville and Wilbur Wright took time away from their bicycle shop to work on the development of gliders and motorized aircraft. While working with bicycles, they had learned much about moving an unstable vehicle through the streets of Dayton. They were confident that, with practice, they could maneuver an awkward aircraft through the sky.

In 1903, they succeeded with their first motorized flight at Kitty Hawk.

The world changed. Mamaw was only four years old.

She was a teenager when an airplane was first used to distribute supplies from Dayton to Columbus. A decade later, airmail flight was becoming common. The first jet-powered aircraft flew in 1939. Mamaw was only 40 years old. She lived to see the construction of the Clinton County Army Airfield. Transcontinental flight became routine. She saw astronauts escape the bounds of gravity. Americans walked on the moon.

I was born 50 years after Mamaw. In my lifetime, flight has become second nature. Every day the Federal Aviation Administration reports that their air traffic controllers handle at least 45,000 flights, and 2.9 million passengers fly through our skies every day.

I understand the basic physics of flight, but I still think it’s a miracle.

My first flight was in a biplane. You might remember when Kings Island flew an airshow into their daily entertainment schedule. The skies above the amusement park were filled with biplanes performing aerobatics as the pilots presented a mock World War I dogfight.

My son, Josh, was no more than 3 years old when the Kings Island biplanes flew to Marysville to participate in the Union County Airshow. They performed the dogfight show, landed, and offered rides. I jumped at the chance. Josh loved it. I was amazed by the magical feeling of being suspended a few thousand feet above reality.

Since then, Debbie and I have flown several times. I have always loved the experience, but Debbie … not so much. She willingly flew with me to vacation spots in the United States, but she was convinced that flying over the ocean was … just not natural.

We laughed about that. It took many years before we flew to Ireland together.

One of our strangest flights was a return trip from the Bahamas to Fort Lauderdale. I have no idea what make or model the aircraft was, but it looked strange. There were about 23 passengers waiting to board the flight. A long, skinny airplane landed and taxied up to the tarmac for loading. The small side door opened, and the steps folded down. There was one small seat on either side of the narrow aisle.

There was practically no ceiling height. I remember duck-walking down the skinny aisle.

“Get in the first seat you come to. Just take a seat. Take a seat.” Those were the only instructions we heard. I slid into the first seat I came to. Debbie was behind me, but somehow, she got herded into the last seats. That row had three seats across. Debbie sat in the middle. I wanted to sit with her, but once seated, no one was allowed get up.

Twisting around, I could see that she was seated between two large men. It looked like they could have been linemen for the Miami Dolphins.

It was a horrible, rough, rocky, bumpy flight. That little airplane was really tossed about. I worried about Debbie. As we finally exited the plane in Fort Lauderdale, I saw that both of those men towered over my wife.

As soon as her feet were on solid ground, she turned to the biggest of the big guys and sheepishly said, “I’m sorry.”

Apparently, Debbie had grabbed his leg as soon as the turbulence started. The more we bumped, the harder she squeezed. She kept squeezing. He kept telling her, “It’ll be alright. It’ll be alright.”

As soon as Debbie offered her final apology, he crossed himself. I’m not sure whether it was because he survived the rough flight or Debbie.

Despite spending her entire life listening to the hum of aircraft engines, I don’t think Mamaw ever flew in an airplane. Knowing Mamaw, that is probably a good thing. It probably would have taken more than two large men to keep Mamaw calm while streaking through the friendly — but occasionally bumpy — skies above America.

Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

Randy Riley

Contributing columnist